Dominic Cummings’ wife is a Catholic. Her name is Mary Wakefield and she is the Commissioning Editor of The Spectator magazine.
She comes from a wealthy background. Her father, Edward Humphry Tyrrell Wakefield, was educated at Gordonstoun School and Trinity College, Cambridge.
Blue blood. He did his stint in the 10th Royal Hussars and went on to become a director and chairman of Christies of London.
Mary’s husband is sometimes depicted as the Svengali-like presence in Downing Street who masterminded the Brexit campaign.
On 27 March the cameras captured him scarpering from No 10 and quickly disappearing.
One headline had “Dominic Cummings runs away from Downing Street about Boris Johnson’s coronavirus diagnosis”.
But according to his wife, he was rushing home to mind her after she was struck down by the illness.
They have a four-year-old son who sounds like a chip off the old blocks. As Mary tells it, after she threw up on the floor, the young man said “that’s disgusting, Mum” and he handed her a towel “with a look of patronising distaste”.
By Mary’s account, the version of the illness she contracted was mild compared to the dose that would soon floor her husband.
He was confined to bed for ten days with a high temperature and at times she became very concerned about his breathing.
The four-year-old donned his doctor’s uniform and took to administering Ribena with “the grim insistence of a Broadmoor nurse”.
Mary gave this account of the family’s experiences with Covid-19 to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday morning. It was her own scripted piece, rather than an interview.
According to her, a factor that persuaded her to convert to Catholicism was the way in which Catholic churches are always open.
She was drawn by the presence of the lit sanctuary lamp. But the virus has forced the closure of all churches, Catholic ones included, and, to her, it seems “someone has turned off the spiritual stopcock”.
When she heard that her husband’s friend and boss, Boris Johnson, had been admitted to hospital with the virus, Mary got to her knees and prayed. She was surprised that the prayers flowed easily “as if carried along in the current of others”.
Love and loss in Northern Ireland
While life and death issues were demanding attention in what are currently the two most powerful families in British politics, in Northern Ireland two senior politicians were grappling with the challenges of love and loss.
Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP’s leader in Westminster, buried his 77-year-old father Jim on Friday, and the Agriculture Minister in the Stormont Executive, Edwin Poots, lost his 90-year-old father Charlie on Thursday.
In both cases the two grieving families did not have the community celebration of life services which, in normal times, are a feature of Irish society, north and south, across the political divide.
Jeffrey Donaldson’s political journey, with many twists and turns, has been a significant element of the Northern Ireland dynamic for more than 20 years.
He was the Ulster Unionist who walked away from the Good Friday Agreement negotiations in 1998.
He and Arlene Foster were key internal UUP critics whose eventual defection to the DUP influenced the shift in the balance of power within unionism.
With his uncanny likeness to Daniel O’Donnell, Donaldson is often the unionist voice put forward for radio and television appearances, south of the border, to put a reasonable slant on the seemingly unreasonable, in the same way that the late Brian Lenihan senior once did for Fianna Fáil.
He has lost friends and made new ones in a career that often brings him close to the flame.
His guiding light and his sounding board throughout all his political manoeuvrings was his father Jim.
Many senior, non-DUP public figures from across the island found a way to express their sympathy to the Donaldsons in recent days: neighbours came to the front garden or end of the lane to pay their respects.
In the same way, the Poots family members also received cross-community sympathy as they were dealing with their loss.
Charlie Poots was a founding member of the DUP and he served as a member of the 1973-74 Northern Ireland Assembly.
Along with Ian and Eileen Paisley, he was among the 12 DUP members elected to the ill-fated Constitutional Convention, set up by Harold Wilson in 1975 to deal with the constitutional issues relevant to Northern Ireland.
Charlie Poots was more comfortable in a local government setting.
He served 24 years as a Lisburn local councillor before he retired from politics in 1997.
After a recent fall at his home, he was admitted to the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald. Visiting restrictions linked to the virus meant his family had difficulties getting to see him in his final days.
In his role as Agriculture Minister, Edwin Poots was on a live Radio Ulster programme during the week, discussing virus-related issues (His wife, Glynis, once worked as a nurse and a daughter is doing so currently).
When he was asked about his father’s condition, the minister welled up and then regained his composure. It was one of the many tender moments of radio in recent times.
One of the first people to sympathise with Edwin Poots the day of his father’s death was former Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams.
The pair once had very little in common. But the relationship changed in recent years.
Adams led the Sinn Féin efforts in the attempt to end the impasse in power-sharing in February 2018.
Edwin Poots was one of the key members of the DUP team.
Their work failed, mainly because some of the DUP’s Westminster set failed to back party leader Arlene Foster.
But Adams emerged from those unsuccessful negotiations with a respect for Poots and a regard for his straight-talking style.
On Friday morning, with the evidence of emotional fragility coming at them from so many quarters, Northern Ireland’s power-sharing administration agreed that graveyards should be re-opened to allow individuals visit their loved ones.
The restriction (which has not been applied south of the border) had developed into a controversy.
Reports of an individual becoming impaled on a railing as he attempted to bring flowers to a grave had a number of unionist ministers pushing for change.
The signal that Sinn Féin was prepared to lift its reservations (ironically moving to an all-island strategy) came from the party president, Mary Lou McDonald, the night before. She said Sinn Féin was “in listening mode”.
The Friday morning policy shift was made without rancour.
Virus patterns on the island
Another item on the power-sharing Executive’s agenda on Friday was evidence which suggests there is a coronavirus border operating down the Irish Sea.
Not for the first time, information and statistics suggest a pandemic that is behaving differently on the island of Ireland (north and south), compared to mainland UK.
The daily update of virus-related deaths, presented at briefings by Northern Ireland ministers, (occasionally accompanied by their main health and science advisers) deal with fatalities in hospital settings only.
But for the past two Fridays they have received information that is gathered differently.
It captures deaths in care homes and hospitals and at residential addresses, as well as the hospital figures.
The daily figures are provided by Northern Ireland’s Public Health Agency (PHA). The more comprehensive accounts come from Northern Ireland’s Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA).
The most recent NISRA figures stop at 17 April.
But it is a simple exercise to compare the NISRA figure for that day with the one that was provided by the Public Health Agency.
The pattern that emerges is in the more comprehensive figures, where care homes, hospices and residential addresses as well as hospital deaths are included, which are approximately 30% higher.
The NISRA figures involve fatalities where coronavirus is a factor mentioned on the death certificate, even when the individual may not have been tested and confirmed as a carrier of the illness.
The information given to the Executive on Friday provides some important clues about the profile of the disease in Northern Ireland.
NISRA says that in the period up to 17 April there were 276 deaths:
- 60% – 166 in hospitals
- 34% – 93 in care homes
- 5% – 14 in residential settings
- 1% – 3 in hospices
Other information provided by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency suggests:
- The 93 care home deaths took place in 44 separate centres
- 54% of the overall total of 276 were men
- People over 75 account for approximately three quarters of the fatalities
If the information being gathered by the Statistics and Research Agency is accurate, the more comprehensive method shows the death rate is approximately 30% higher than the daily figure reported by the Public Health Agency. (The Health Agency, (Hospital settings only) figure on 17 April was 212; the Statistics Agency 276 – an increase of 30%).
If this pattern holds, a rule of thumb exercise to provide a clearer picture is to increase the daily total by 30%.
The Health Agency total provided on Friday was 278.
A 30% increase in this would take that to 361.
The Friday virus-related deaths total south of the border provided on the night of 24 April indicated 1,014 fatalities.
One means of gaining a rough snapshot is to add that RoI figure (1,014) and the higher NI figure (hospital settings only deaths 278 plus 30% = 361) – this produces an island of Ireland notional figure of 1,375 deaths by Friday 24 April.
The Northern Ireland element – 361 – is 26% of that total. Northern Ireland accounts for approximately 28% of the total population of the island of Ireland.
Reported virus-related deaths are just one aspect of how this brutal and mysterious disease is behaving on the island of Ireland.
There are so many other important dimensions when seeking a more detailed picture, including the numbers who have actually contracted the illness, the quality of care being received and the recovery rates.
The patterns could change dramatically in a short time and completely different trends could emerge in the two jurisdictions.
The information-gathering systems could be flawed.
The figures for deaths in nursing homes may, in time, have to be revisited and upped.
What are the stories behind the high disease statistics in Letterkenny and Cavan?
It is 100% true that there have been significant differences in some of the strategies pursued north and south of the border.
The Stormont Executive was slower than the south to close schools. In keeping with general UK government policy, it stuttered when implementing testing and contact-tracing systems.
Mindful of the shutdown policy across the border, many schools, bars and restaurants in Northern Ireland began acting voluntarily before closure became official government policy.
But compared to the south, it didn’t have the difficulty of Italian fans who were let arrive freely, despite an international rugby match being cancelled.
In proportionate terms, Northern Ireland might not have the same numbers of Cheltenham racegoers.
Before the virus struck it didn’t have a Celtic Tiger 2 economy, packed ‘Sweet Caroline’ singing venues included.
Nor did Northern Ireland have as many urban settings where huge numbers of renters were squeezed like sardines into shoebox apartments.
It was interesting how, at their news conference on Friday evening, both Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill acknowledged there is an island of Ireland dimension to the coronavirus saga.
The Sinn Féin deputy leader told how the situation ‘in the North’, compared what is happening in the UK, had featured in conversations on the margins of Cobra meetings with the likes of the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and the Mayor of London Sadik Khan.
Mrs Foster mentioned how population density is one of many factors influencing the nature of the disease threat on the island.
Anecdotes and incidents provide some interesting pointers to how old habits and traditional methods are being challenged and sometimes buried by this emergency.
The not beyond a 2km radius of your home rule, overseen by gardaí, has been viewed with envy by frustrated PSNI members.
One nationalist driver in the Strabane area was surprised to hear a PSNI officer say out loud that he wished he was empowered to operate along garda lines.
On Friday the Stormont executive moved to improve the understanding of what the PSNI is legally entitled to enforce.
Michelle O’Neill and some of her party members had to modify their, in all circumstances, ‘Brits Out’ mantra.
When it seemed an extra emergency Nightingale Hospital might be urgently required, the Health Minister Robin Swann availed of the expertise of British Army Engineers to examine the lands around the Old Maze prison, near Lisburn, just as they had done in a number of settings across the water. Sinn Féin’s gut reaction was to say No. Until they took soundings in the community. The policy soon became ‘Brits In’ – provided the emergency facilities are needed, British Army personnel are the best people to do the work and once open, the site would be run by the NHS.
The same Health Minister Robin Swann found himself under severe pressure a week ago as the administration in London was engaged in a mad scramble, trying to gather protective gowns for frontline workers.
The Northern Ireland attitude was to offer, on a strict short-term loan basis, some supplies from its stocks. (It was a ‘good neighbours’ response and a similar view would most likely have been taken if the request came south of the border).
The anecdotes and statistics convey a situation where our world is being changed by a still out-of-control challenge nobody saw coming.
In a care home in Derry, 83-year-old John Hume is oblivious to the details of what is happening. But in our surreal existence beyond his sheltered circumstances, the kind of live-and-let-live principles he championed are coming to pass by a route he never envisaged.
Much of the old guff and division is meaningless now.
The next phase, the beginning of the lifting of restrictions, could be tricky. It might well set off the arguing once more. The identity tensions could resurface.
But maybe this destructive virus is unwittingly bringing us to a more practical understanding of how we all share this island.
Like Mary Wakefield, Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson, Mary Lou McDonald, was sidelined by the disease.
On Friday night, in a huge RTÉ studio without an audience, she was interviewed by Ryan Tubridy, another who contracted the virus. It was clear the Sinn Féin president had been through the wringer. She had the more reflective aura of someone who was emerging from difficult days.
Like previous Sinn Féin leaders, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, Mary Lou now has war experience.
She won’t be going away.